FOOD REVIEW: Splendid but not top Marks...

M & S Cafe,Meadowhall....Staff making a Cappuccino
M & S Cafe,Meadowhall....Staff making a Cappuccino

We’d only popped in to Marky-Sparky for a bit of food shopping.

If that sounds extravagant, it isn’t. The M&S food hall has got much cheaper since it started all those deals.

Our favourite is the £10 Dine For Two; choose wisely and you’ve got enough grub for a weekend.

But it was teatime; we were peckish, not least because our appetites had been well and truly whetted by all the delicacies on the open deli counter, which has thankfully returned after the store’s recent revamp.

Our carrier bags stuffed with delicious things, we headed for the café, which has just had a refurb, too.

This being M&S, we expected no ordinary café.

Only there we were, in the capacious, bountifully stocked testament to modern consumerism that is the Meadowhall store, surrounded by fashion, furnishings and food all so fine it would have made Mr Marks and Mr Sparks have palpitations, sitting in what is indeed a very ordinary café.

That seems to be what the average – you could never say ordinary – M&S shopper wants. There are two cafés in the store, both of which serve the same food. The ground floor one we’re in is an 80-seater, the one upstairs, to which I have never ventured, seats 70. Both are normally packed.

On our visit, it’s much quieter. So much so that there are three lads in black uniforms behind the counter, having a bit of a chat – until we interrupted.

We must have looked like regulars; they seemed to assume we knew the form. But we didn’t and it’s a bit confusing for the novice nosher as there are two food service areas. “The other one is only used when the café is really busy,” explained one lad, a patient chap.

He also had to give us guidance on the food; there’s a wall of pre-packed sandwiches, paninis and toasties for you to pick from before you get to the counter. Once you get to the front of the queue, you pass to the lads any you want toasted.

At the counter, there are fresh soups and jacket potatoes with various fillings to order from the menu, and several hot and cold pre-packed ready meals identical to the ones you’ll find in the foodhall.

I’m a bit miffed. Firstly, all the dishes have a calorie count next to them, which is a good idea, but it made me feel guilty. And only the jacket potatoes are cooked from scratch. Everything else is just warmed up when you order it, in a microwave oven or a toaster.

The menu is meant to reflect what is in season and the café is currently offering hot ready meals from the Espania range. We chose Spanish classics Chicken Patatas Bravas and Chicken and Chorizo Paella, both £4.95, paid up and went to find a seat while the microwave got to work.

My husband’s little pot of Fairtrade tea (£1.70) was extremely good; my Fairtrade flat white coffee (£2.30) was even better. It was strong and rich, with a good, smooth head boasting a stylish feather pattern in the foam. The staff are clearly barrista-trained.

It was a short wait for the food; just enough time to survey the new-look surrounds. Blonde wooden floor, pale green and grey bucket chairs, big lampshades hanging funkily low over each table and colourful giant shapes of teapots, cups and sauces and cake stands down one wall, it’s a simple but pleasant environment. “It feels quite Swedish, a bit Ikea,” says my husband.

It’s very tidy; the staff ensure no table is left for long with used crockery on it. And I like the fact that staff organise waste food and packaging in the recycling corner.

Our meals arrived within ten minutes, looking exactly like what they were; ready-meals. They were good quality, tasty and filling, but the paella rice was claggy and the patatas were soft and mushy, rather than bravas-crisp.

That’s what happens when you microwave food.

Never mind; the cake stand was beckoning; two tables were groaning with old-fashioned, glass-domed cake stands bearing huge, fat scones, glorious-looking gateaux and towering traditional sponges.

Because we’d got two bags of shopping under the table, the husband went off to make his choice. When he came back, it was my turn to pick, cut from the pre-sliced cakes, then head to the counter to pay – again.

His £2.75 carrot cake was divine – spicy, moist to the point of stickiness.

My three-tier slice Victoria sponge laced with jam (£2.50) was huge and just like a proper, old-fashioned cake should be (they are made for M&S using free-range eggs).

We left feeling we’d been adequately and speedily fed and watered. But as food experiences go, this had been a soul-less one..

It was like an overnight stay with a budget hotel chain. You know exactly what to expect because it adheres to a standard, plus it’s efficient and inexpensive.

Lots of people like that. It’s secure, safe. You know what you’re going to get.

But it left us feeling empty.

Why couldn’t we have had all those sumptuous things you see on the open deli counter? The carved meats, the freshly-made pasta and sauces, the cheeses, the unusual salads, the glinting, golden roast chickens from the rotisserie?

At least they could have done one of those chocolate puddings with a melting fondant centre you see on the telly commercial.

Or what about the £10 meal deal for two? That WOULD be a good idea (imagine the scene as couples totter off to hosiery and socks to spend their silver pound willy-nilly, having quaffed a full bottle of wine).

I think M&S are missing a trick.

Their cafés could be so much More Than. They could be the Finest.